Telling the bees

There is a tradition, seemingly one that goes back hundreds of years or more, of telling the bees of family bereavements or weddings.  Sadly, my stepfather passed away recently so I have dutifully told the bees.  They didn’t seem to be too bothered, but somehow it made me feel a little better for having followed tradition in a suitably somber manner.

There are varying interpretations of the tradition. Some regard it more as a superstition where if the bees were not told of their keepers demise, they would abscond or ‘refuse’ to produce honey. (There are even tales of bees being sold without telling them of their keepers death and them becoming very poorly and then recovering once their new keeper had draped their hive with black crepe so they could mourn suitably.) Some involve very specific rituals of knocking on the hive and reciting a rhyme. Again, lots of variations here but one such was “Little bee, our lord is dead; Leave me not in my distress.” Another variation involves inviting the bees to the funeral, although it’s not clear whether the beekeeper was supposed to actually take them or if they were supposed to find their own way there.

For my part, the simple act of telling the bees was enough. I think this is something I might actually do more of – simply telling the bees what’s happened in my world, what’s upsetting or stressful, what’s exciting and good. Births, marriages and deaths, maybe birthdays and suchlike. I’m not sure it will make the bees closer to me, but in a way it might make me closer to them.

RIP – David Lloyd

I think you would have appreciated this.

Easter hols, aggressive bees and bad foundations

​​It’s Easter weekend and I’m at the end of a week off work that almost seems to have been busier than a week in work! Gardening and beekeeping jobs done, taking care of kids and driving duties (5hrs to Cornwall, yesterday- back again tomorrow) done.  

My reflections on beekeeping jobs this week are mixed. My Flow Hive is now building nicely. I probably should have fed these ladies sooner, but they’re taking feed rapidly now and expanding almost as fast. Brood on 4 frames in the brood box, and extending above the BB into the 1/2 above on 3 out of the 4.  They’re doing well.   National1 in the garden is still aggressive when entered, but seem to be a little less so when they’re left alone. They don’t seem to be cross combing under the standard frames, and are building on the 14x12s.  I’ll have to move them to the out apiary though. Immediately after if been through and closed these girls up again, my neighbour looked over the fence to offer me some young vegetable plants. The ladies didn’t like him being there right then and went for him :(. Now I owe him more honey in payment for his stings. ( To be fair though – if you look over a fence and see a fully suited up beekeeper keeping his distance, it’s probably a good bet that you should too!  ) 

National 2 was the slow grower in my out apiary and I decided to do a shook swarm there. Completely sterilised new hive kit, new frames etc, queen found and held safe while all the bees were shaken into their new home and then reunited with their queen. They were fed two days later (the two day gap giving them time to convert any possibly infected honey in their guts into wax) and are building nicely. Hopefully on my next inspection they will have built out and started brood again. Apparently, shook swarms often put egg laying into overdrive and build really strong colonies, at the same time as removing any potential build up of disease in the comb. (The comb was pretty much all old and nasty so was thrown away bar a couple of frames that I’ll melt down for wax). 

National 3 is building nicely. Nothing major to report there. 

National 4 is building cross comb and sticking frames together all through 😞. This is a problem. Partly due to me replacing part, but not all of he frames with 14×12 and giving them gaps to fill. What’s surprising is how much comb they’ve built in all the wrong places.  An extra problem is the pre built frames I got from The foundation is mounted really loosely and is falling out! This has contributed to frames being stuck together and I’ve asked for their advice on how to proceed. (No response yet). New foundation has been ordered just in case. I’ll need it eventually anyway. 

These girls are also aggressive. (Maybe because their home is falling apart?). They don’t like smoke much either. While I was lighting the smoker 12ft away from the back of he hive, 3 or 4 of the girls starting buzzing me and one for me right in the forehead before I managed to get my bee veil up. (Note to self – light smoker further away and ALWAYS wear a veil when approaching).  

Queen rearing kit has been acquired. Report to follow. At least 2 of these National hives will be requeened.  Possibly all of them.  

For now I’m enjoying my weekend in Cornwall and thanking my lucky stars my bee sting hasn’t made my face swell for my hols.    

Back soon. 😎

Update on the poorly managed hive.

So in my previous post about this hive (N1, for those actually following), I mentioned some Deformed Wing Virus (DWV) was visible.  Not loads, but as these guys were seemingly very aggressive as well I decided to treat them with oxalic acid (OA) vaporisation to counter any excessive varroa population that might be bothering them. This means I’ll be sacrificing any honey in the supers as I can’t harvest after treating with them on, but I’d rather have a strong colony of healthy bees. Plus they’ve had brood in these supers already so the wax has cocoons and bits in it. I like to keep my supers clear so they’re getting sacrificed.

OA vaporisation has now taken place twice – 6 days apart. One more to go this Friday and they’ll be done.  There’s been a fairly heavy mite fall but not so enormous I’d have expected it to be causing massive problems.  If they’re carrying DWV they are best wiped out though and three sessions of OA vaping should kill off most of them as it deals with hatching brood as well as the live flyers.  I guess this needs a blog post in it’s own right to go through that – it’ll come in time, promise.  This has also saved me having to unseal the hive after each vape treatment. I hate wasting stuff and this includes duct tape!

They seem to be getting on pretty well. Certainly very active looking from the outside, but as they’ve been moved, shuffled round, had the brood box expanded with foundation added and frames removed, and now vaporised twice, I’m not opening them up until after the final vape this week.  Hopefully the new 14×12 frames will be being built out and I won’t have excessive cross combing underneath.  (Can you tell I’m a little nervous about this).   Next post should tell all!

Early April inspection update (2017)

Spring has sprung, the weather has started to become reliably warmer and it seems as if we’re free of frosts in Southern England for 2017.  You never can tell, of course, but we’ve already had temperatures of 20C+ and the nights are comfortably 5C+.

My update on the troublesome ‘brood in the wrong place’ hive is here, and to log the rest of the hives we’ll run through them here.

The Flow Hive in my garden apiary is starting to come to life. Bees are hatching, brood is growing and now comfortably on 4 frames. They’re not yet touching the super that I placed there as a brood and 1/2 setup, so I’ve fed with sugar syrup to kick start them a little. They seem really well behaved and calm – certainly my calmest colony and if I can get them to build up some more I’ll be looking to use these guys as a queen rearing colony in future. That, of course, depends on them being able to build fast and show me they can perform. They have competition now as at least two of my out apiary colonies are massively outperforming them.

In the Windlesham apiary, N3 now has brood on 7 frames, and N4 on 6. These guys are building rapidly and already have two supers on them! N3 is filling the second super and N4 looks about to start!  These hives are so busy at the moment that I’ve still not had sight of the queens. No need to worry though as they are definitely both queen right – fantastic brood patterns and visible eggs in both hives. Big thumbs up to Q4 and Q5 !

I’ve added an eke to N4 to convert them to 14 x 12 ( bigger brood box for a larger colony).  As with N1 in the Garden apiary, about half of the frames (in this case, everything without brood on it) has been replaced with 14 x 12 frames giving them plenty of space to build and fresh foundation to work with.  They’re a little aggressive, but it was starting to cool and most of the flyers were home so it may just be a consequence of that. (Wait and see again – no reason to worry too much).

N2, however is looking slow to get moving. Q3 has expanded from 3 to 4 frames of brood, but barely.  I have been able to mark her though.  Not knowing the exact ages of these queens I’ll be marking them all green for now with the intent of replacing them before green gets confusing in 2019.  For now, green just identifies them as queens purchased with colonies in 2017  (I  know it’s not best practice, but I can’t see it causing challenges at the moment).  I’m a little worried about these guys to be honest, but there are no obvious issues other than slower build up so I’ll just keep an eye for now.

I’ve put a bait hive in Windlesham as well, with some slumgum from melting down old comb as swarm attractant. Who knows, I may be able to expand by picking up feral swarms.  Fingers crossed.


Straightening out a poorly managed beehive.

National 1 is one of my new colonies. The previous owner had, rather unwisely, left two full supers over the top of the brood box without a queen excluder.  My first initial inspection a couple of weeks ago confirmed the fear I’d had when I got this hive – Queenie (Q2) had decided to move upstairs and start laying brood in the supers.   As the brood was confined exclusively to the supers, this seemed fairly straightforward to fix and they were moved below the brood box so Queenie would move upstairs, out of the supers and into the brood box where she should have been in the first place.  This could have gone badly – the bottom of the hive will have been colder than the top, after all. The brood could have been chilled or the queen might not have moved up anyway. Luckily todays inspection showed she had moved up and started laying (and after that pleasing revelation I neglected to check further). The plan for this hive today (always have a plan – things go more smoothly!) was fourfold.

  • Ensure the brood was in the brood box,
  • remove the under supers,
  • replace the brood box to 14 x 12 and in doing so,
  • refresh some of the frames with new 14 x 12 foundation.

With a new 14 x 12 box (actually a regular national box with a 14 x 12 expansion eke) at the ready, I started the check.  Taking frames from the old box and replacing in the new box. Frames not being used for brood were interspersed with 14 x 12 frame, and the original brood frames now have space below for the bees to build brood comb, but SHOULD still stay straight as they have foundation frames either side.   The bigger challenge is the space below the brood nest, which is currently 4 frames wide. If they start cross combing that I may have a problem. Fingers crossed on this one – I’ll let you know how it works out.

Plan departure #1 – On the first frame with brood, the queen scuttled under the frame and over to the other side, As it was the first time I’d seen the queen (and a lovely specimen she appears to be – big, glossy, and very quick!) I decided to mark her. Using a crown of thorns she was trapped and marked pretty quickly, and left trapped while I finished the inspection, giving the paint a chance to dry a little. As I don’t know her exact age she was marked green (as Q3,4 and 5 will be) as a 2014 queen (as per THIS post), but I don’t really know her correct age so will just have to see how she carries on.

It was about this point that the bees started getting a little feisty. My first hive (Flow1) has always been pretty passive, so I’m hoping that this isn’t a portent of things to come. Maybe they didn’t like the paint, or maybe just didn’t like their queen being trapped or something about how I was working them. One things for sure, I definitely need to work on keeping my smoker lit (or maybe just lighting it properly – will have to post about this sometime).

Plan departure #2 – I should have checked first – this was a mistake. Even though the queen had moved up to the brood box, she hadn’t stopped laying in the supers below. Rightly or wrongly, my hastily considered modification to the plan as follows.

  • New brood box (with brood and queen) on the hive floor
  • QE over this
  • Supers with brood over this.

My hope is that even though I split the brood nest, there are now enough bees to nurse them through. If not, some of the brood in this part may be lost, but hopefully nothing worse.

At this point, they need feeding. There’s some new foundation in the brood box and brood that needs feeding. The weather is getting better but there are no guarantees it’ll stay good, and similar with forage. A cold snap could knock back some of the current blossoming. Two options – sugar syrup or their own old stores.  I went with their own old stores, in the original brood box on top, with just a small gap through a hole in the crown board (mainly covered with a piece of cardboard) to their supers. Hopefully they’ll rob this out and store it and if they need more feed in a few days I’ll put some sugar syrup over the top.

Possible problem – DWV (Deformed Wing Virus) visible on a few bees in National 1 – need to read up on this and take action.

Flow 1 went smoothly. Plan add super for brood and a half set up. Accomplished simply after a quick inspection to confirm queen, brood and stores are adequate – they are.

In other news, before all this I did a tandem skydive with my son today for his 16th birthday.  Very, very cool – big smiles all round.

Spring is here!

Spring is here!  The birds are tweeting, the bees are flying, the sunshine warms your body and everything is good and right with the world again.  Hang on – that was last week. It’s a lot bloody colder now!

The first day of spring for the Northern hemisphere in 2017 was officially Monday March 20th. Also known as the vernal equinox, spring equinox or March equinox, this is the date in which the sun crosses a line in the sky known as the celestial equator – effectively an imaginary line drawn above the Earth’s real equator. We’d like to hope that the day would be marked by a sudden improvement in the weather and temperature signifying the end of winter and the onset of spring. Unfortunately this seemed to happen the wrong way around this year and temperatures have dropped a good few degrees and feel even worse due to wind chill.

THIS is why I’ve not been messing around with my bees just yet. I’ve been watching videos on YouTube of people ‘taking advantage of the warm weather’ and doing shook swarms or Bailey comb changes. These are big, disruptive manipulations and I’m asking myself if there is any necessity for them this early in the season. For me, the weather is not yet reliably warm enough to be putting my bees in a stressful and difficult situation that may make it hard for them to survive. A week or so of warm weather in March does not mean that we won’t see frosts, or even snow, in late March or early April. Most of us know that snow, even as late as Easter is not unheard of.

As a gardener as well as a beekeeper I’ve learned the hard way that early sowings are prone to loss.  It’s very easy to get overly optimistic and plant seeds too early. Sometimes they’ll start to sprout. Sometimes they get lucky and the weather stays warm enough for them to survive. More often than not it turns and seedlings die or get super stressed and ‘leggy’. I’ve made this mistake myself on many an occasion in the past and am trying hard to do better. With seedlings though, there is always an option to replant and start again when the weather is actually warm enough.  We may not always get this option with bees. If they die, it’s not so easy to start again.

Any beekeeper (or aspiring beekeeper) would do well to remember that bees are fundamentally wild and, given the right circumstances, they will survive without any help from us. All we are doing is hoping to provide a better standard of lodging for them in return for a little honey and some pollination services. We are landlords not keepers, and should be respectful of our tenants homes.  I’m pretty sure that if my landlord lifted off the roof, took all the furniture and expected me to rebuild everything from scratch, AND did it while the weather was likely to make things freezing cold in the kids nursery, I’d be moving out.

Thank I’ll wait another couple of weeks before doing anything major.

Flow Hives

This article was originally written for Surrey Bees newsletter and is a general summary of my first year with a Flow Hive.

Imagine, honey flowing directly from hive frames into a jar. No uncapping, spinning and cleaning up required, just fresh, clean fabulously tasty honey.  What makes it even better?  It’s not a marketing gimmick on a video but my own hive, in my own back garden, and I’m having fresh honey on toast before it’s even hit the jar!

It’s felt like a long road getting here though.  The Flow Frames are made out of plastic, partially prebuilt honeycomb that can be ‘split’ open when the honey is ready to harvest and allows the honey to flow down through the frame and out of a tube in the back of the hive. Having seen this fantastic looking contraption on a crowdfunding site and been intrigued enough to go back and have a look more than a few times I decided to invest in a hive back in March 2015.  For those not familiar, crowdfunding is a way of raising capital for startup businesses before they’re established.  The Flow Frames themselves had been developed and tested by the Anderson family in Australia over a period of about 10 years and the Andersons now needed capital to set up production. Initially looking for $75,000 the campaign clearly appealed to a lot of people. The target was hit in less than 5 minutes and ran into the millions shortly after. With this amount of interest, the Andersons had their work cut out for them getting hives and the Flow Frames built and shipped.
In the meantime, it was time for me to start learning about bees.  A quick investigation online told me it was going to be best to start my hive in the spring – a good thing as the hive only arrived in January.  My lovely girlfriend got in touch with Surrey Bees and bought me the beginners theory course as a gift for Christmas. What a great gift that was – having a basic understanding of bees and how to keep them before you start is probably the best recommendation I could make to anyone interested. Every week taught me more, and every week I left realising how much more there was to learn. I’m sure it will take me a lifetime and then some!
Within the first week or so I’d signed myself up for the practical beginners course and was eagerly looking forward to handling bees for the first time.
Having joined a number of beekeeping groups on Facebook it was clear that the Flow hives were somewhat controversial.  Lots of people were sceptical about them working and how practical they would be and some strong opinions were being thrown around. Whilst on the theory course I’d kept quiet as I didn’t want to get into discussions I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to have. Once the practical started though, my hive was obviously different as it’s based around an 8 frame Langstroth rather than the more usual 10 frame size. It also has ‘Founding Supporter of the Flow Hive’ etched on the side of it – there was no hiding from that!  Sure enough, opinions from established beekeepers ranged from “it’s a load of bollocks” to “it’ll be interesting to see if it works”. My hive went home with me as soon as the nuc had been installed. As a keen gardener with space it will certainly help with pollination in the local area, and give the kids an exposure to bees that they wouldn’t otherwise have.
In the brood box, nothing changes with the flow hive. We still check through regularly making sure the hive is Queenright, that brood is Building Up, that there’s Room, no Disease and that the colony has Stores (QBURDS – a very useful mnemonic). Long story short, the brood built up nicely and it was soon time to put a super on. Or not. The weather was awful and it was tricky to tell what the right time was to add the super and when I did, the bees didn’t seem to want to touch it. Was the Flow a failure?
A few weeks later and the brood had built up further, still weren’t using the super and were building queen cells!  A worrying moment, but my theory course had shown me the Pagden Method of swarm control and I went with that (having bought spare equipment knowing I’d need it at some point). 3 weeks later again and it was clear both queen cells had failed and only one hive was queenright so I had to recombine (paper method). This worked a treat and the combined colonies were clearly desperate to store nectar from what was now a strong flow. They were building up the cells in the Flow super the week after recombining – success was almost certain!
Once they’d started building it was business as usual until the frames were ready. One of the potential challenges of the Flow Frames is honey crystallising in them. Oil Seed Rape at the beginning of the season and Ivy at the end are the most likely to cause this so at the beginning of August I decided to harvest and then store the Flow Frames over winter. I’ve now added a ‘regular’ super so the bees can continue to make stores for the winter and I’ve no plans to take this from them.
That brings us right back to the start, on a sunny Saturday in August, watching honey flowing directly from my hive into jars. The bees undisturbed and still foraging at the front of the hive while I held a bit of buttered toast under the flow and tasted the best honey I have ever had.  Lovely.
I only took about 10Lbs of honey this year, but as a first year and the bees having to build everything from scratch I personally don’t think that’s bad as I know some keepers who haven’t had any harvest this year.
Pros and cons in a nutshell?
Pros – No mess, simple easy extraction, no bother to the bees
          No additional extraction equipment required
          It got me, and hundreds of other beekeepers around the world, started in keeping bees
          It’s a great discussion point
Cons – It’s costly (about £500 for the whole hive)
           Crystalising honey needs to be avoided so different supers and a different method of extracting is still required if you want to take these harvests
            Some of the discussions can get quite heated as people write off ‘the new fangled technology stuff’